Hundreds of species of sharks, rays and their relatives can be covered by the term “shark” in international law. These are generally long lived, late maturing, low fecundity species, susceptible to anthropogenic pressures. Research has shown that sharks and rays inhabiting shallower coastal waters are at greater risk of extinction than their offshore relatives. Fishing pressure and habitat destruction are the main causes of their poor conservation status.
Despite rising concern over the conservation status of sharks and rays, few species are directly protected by international law. The fact that sharks and rays can be target species, as well as desirable and undesirable bycatch, complicates conservation and management efforts. The following section looks at the types of protection available to species listed under different agreements as well as how the issue is addressed in fisheries law.
INTERNATIONAL TRADE MEASURES:
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
Sawfishes are the only species of the shark and ray group protected under Appendix I of CITES. This means that international trade for commercial purposes in these species is prohibited.
Eight species of shark and all species of manta rays are listed on Appendix II of CITES. This imposes obligations on the exporting states to monitor trade in the listed species and stop issuing permits if trade becomes detrimental to the survival of the species. CITES has developed guidelines for making these non-detrimental findings. See
CONSERVATION & MANAGEMENT MEASURES:
Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and
Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks (Sharks MOU)
Four species of sharks, all manta rays, mobula rays, sawfishes, and a population of common guitarfish are listed on Appendix I of CMS. Parties to this convention have to prohibit take and domestic trade, as well protect critical habitat of these species. A lot more sharks are listed on Appendix II of CMS, and this has led to the negotiation of Sharks MOU, under the auspice of CMS, to address conservation and sustainable use of these species. Parties to Sharks MOU have agreed on a list of objectives and a conservation plan to achieve them. Details can be found
Although CMS and Sharks MOU outline helpful conservation and management measures, few countries in the Caribbean are parties to these agreements. To encourage greater participation, Sharks MOU is open to range states that are not parties to CMS.
REGIONAL CONSERVATION & MANAGEMENT MEASURES:
Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol to the Cartagena Convention (SPAW)
Both species of sawfish, smalltooth sawfish and largetooth sawfish, are afforded full protection in the Caribbean by virtue of being listed on Annex II of SPAW. This means that all domestic trade in parts and products, and take, including, to the extent possible, incidental take is prohibited.
Five shark species (whale shark, 3 hammerheads, and oceanic whitetip) as well as all manta rays are listed on Annex III of SPAW. For these species, the parties to SPAW have to agree on conservation and management measures that could include closed seasons and regulation of taking and trade. Sharks were added to the list in 2017 but the details of these measures are yet to be determined.
MEASURES THAT APPLY TO ALL SHARKS & RAYS
Just because a shark or ray species is not listed under one of the above agreements, does not mean that states do not have any obligations towards it. In fact, the United Nations General Assembly has called upon states to ensure that their shark catches are sustainable by complying with documents such as the International Plan of Action for Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA-SHARKS). IPOA-SHARKS urges states to develop national and regional plans to address threats to sharks and rays such as excessive shark catches, finning, and habitat loss. See the full IPOA-SHARKS document
IPOA-SHARKS builds upon the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (Code of Conduct), developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and considered to be one of the most influential documents in fisheries. The Code of Conduct outlines the principles for responsible fisheries management and specifically says that management measures should not only ensure the conservation of target species but also of species belonging to the same ecosystem or associated with or dependent upon the target species. See the full Code of Conduct
The Code of Conduct is being implemented in the Caribbean by the regional fisheries bodies. For example in Central America, the Organization of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Central America (OSPESCA) has prohibited shark finning within its members territories by requiring all sharks to be landed with fins naturally attached.